Lilith The Night Demon – After we had finished our last project, The Klezmer Shul, there were many bits and pieces of compositions that we had left behind, ones that didn’t make the final cut, not because of any lack of quality, but simply because they didn’t fit the format we had developed. There was so much there that we asked ourselves, what do we do for the next project?
When Cookie came up with the idea of using superstitions, our curiosity was piqued. Cookie had grown up among Holocaust survivors and East European immigrants in Kansas City – all of whom had a plethora of superstitions ready to pounce on every situation, so her perspective was invaluable. We also enlisted the help of friends of ours who also happen to be Yiddish experts: Michael Wex, Harvey Varga, Henry Sapoznik and Miriam Isaacs.
So when Magen invited us for breakfast and brainstorming one morning after our last performance with the SFCA in 2012, we broached the idea of setting superstitions to music. She was on board right away, and so now the problem was….how?
We’ve always loved the idea of small vignettes, especially for ideas that don’t offer themselves right away for development – ideas that seem good at the time, but don’t offer the obvious opportunity for expansion into a large work. This is why we enjoy listening to the music of TV ads They’re, for us, the haikus of the entertainment field – short vignettes through which, by the end of as little as ten seconds, the viewer needs to be drawn in, made to comprehend and remember the message, and feel a call to action by the time it ends.
I remember a critique I read once about Schubert’s use of the simple song as his main form of expression. The critic wrote that Schubert’s ideas were too small to warrant use in a larger form. Although Schubert proved this wrong in his symphonies (with the ironic exception of the unfinished symphony), the criticism may have had a good deal of truth to it. But moreover, I wondered why the small idea with “short legs” was any less fascinating than the grand idea that might eventually lose our attention. After all, who has the mental stamina to concentrate on the dense development of ideas throughout the entirety of a Beethoven or Mahler symphony? Could it be that the sonata form is simply too large to comprehend comfortably, and is therefore “better than it sounds?” So we decided to create a larger work from smaller parts.
There are so many superstitions that abound in Jewish culture, many of which are shared by other East European cultures, but whereas poems or aphorisms, or even prose, lend themselves to vocal musical settings, superstitions, dreams and curses do not. Yet, because of the challenge, the problem intrigued us even more. We started by gathering the ones we knew, and then began to ask old Jews about theirs. We also visited our friend Francesco Spagnolo, the curator of the Magnes Jewish Museum, who kindly let us view the archived amulet collection after hours, which transported us into a world of demons, incantations and symbols. That, combined with our discussions with Professor Martin Schwartz, who had published various articles on superstitions and angels, armed us with enough material to begin our work. And Stuart Brotman’s field recordings and knowledge of lesser known East European styles has given us source material we would never have come by otherwise.
When I began composing the choral parts of the work, my attitude was playful and sarcastic, even admittedly disdainful. I don’t count myself among the ranks of people who are superstitious. After all, superstitions at their core seem to be characterized by the misunderstanding of cause and effect: a black cat crossing our path doesn’t cause the 10th story piano to fall on our head, the broken cable does. But then again, that’s far too simplistic.
The more I immersed myself into the work, the more I began to see the serious implications of superstitions in general and Jewish superstitions in particular. Because, at the core of Jewish superstitions is the idea of thwarting the tragic reality of infant death. If we allow ourselves to enter into the mindset that cannot explain the sudden death of a child, and to question the theological morals of a God who allows this, the only explanation that would allow us to continue to have faith in the compassion of a diety and accept the horror of allowing the destruction of innocents is to define the source of this evil act to have its source in a world outside of the one created for us. That world is allowed to exist, and is even allowed to act upon us, yet because it is not endorsed by the almighty, its….well…not his fault. Furthermore, we can’t pray to it – as this is reserved for the almighty exclusively – but we can incant, recite, sing and perform rituals against it. And our hope would be that the closer these gestures resemble prayer without actually being prayer themselves, the more effective they may be. And in the end, to marry the serious with the absurd, the elegant with the grotesque, and prayer with folly, perhaps we could do what superstitions are supposed to do in the first place – vex the source enough to leave us alone.